The NS Interview: Ahdaf Soueif, Egyptian author and activist

“The Islamist experience is one that we have to go through”

New Statesman
Credit: Charlotte Player/New Statesman

Why do you write your fiction in English, and journalism in both Arabic and English?
English was the language I first read in as a child. My mother’s library was English literature, so, by the time I came to write, my literary speaking voice was in English. In the last year, I’ve written a column in Arabic. That’s been a discovery, and I don’t think it would have happened without the revolution.

What impact will the revolution have on creative life in Egypt?
There’s a tremendous flowering of the immediately responsive part of art. So far, it’s poetry and song, music, a lot of graffiti and immediate, plastic-type art, and stand-up comedy. For bigger stuff, ie, the novel, it will take time.

Will the revolution affect Arab fiction?
In Egypt, the novel has for so long been concerned with events. In the last few years, we’ve had novels that were descriptions of dystopia – if nothing changes, it is dark, a nightmare. The novel is connected with life, and what’s been happening will be reflected in it.

What is the role of the writer in the revolutionary context?
The role of the poet is obvious, because the thing that unites all the factions is a poem or a song. Many of us fiction writers are writing columns. You can [express] things in a different way from political analysts. Your job is to articulate, to advocate, to inspire.

Do you see yourself mainly as a fiction writer, an activist or a journalist?
At heart, I would say fiction writer, but it’s been 12 years since I’ve written any fiction and, for those years, I have been an activist.

Will you fictionalise the revolution?
I had a novel that was on the go and I put it to one side, but I want to pick it up again. It will be interesting to see whether it takes in what has happened.

What was your experience of writing the book?
What was really hard was staying home and writing rather than being out on the streets.

The young people in your family were also involved in the revolution.
All out there. They are the real revolutionaries, my son, my nephew, my nieces, everybody.

Have you always been interested in politics?
I was brought up on politics, and I’ve been participating in terms of activism in writing since forever, but it’s only been since the revolution that any of us has been able to participate fully.

Do you see the revolution being completed?
It’s a process, it’s continuing. We managed to force the regime to sacrifice the head, but the [rest] is there. The revolution is much more varied; it’s scattered, but it’s there. What we want is so big, so all-encompassing, so radical, that this is the new way of life for a while.

Is it the place of western governments to worry about Islamism in Egypt?
Western governments should stay out of things. They have done so much damage, it surprises us how they have the gall to comment. They have failed to deliver the societies people want. The world is looking for a new model.

What do you think of the Muslim Brotherhood?
The Islamist experience is one that we have to go through. Parts of the Brotherhood were there for the poor when nobody else was. They have more credibility than others. For a long time, they were the only opposition. Now they have been elected. You either accept democracy or you don’t.

How are they doing in power?
They’re not used to operating in the light; they are used to being underground. It’s very different being in power, where you have to follow your words with deeds. Whether they will learn, we don’t know. They haven’t done well.

What is the situation for women since the revolution?
Women were very careful to say that they were taking part in the revolution as citizens. Social problems such as harassment on the streets, and so on, vanished during the 18 days. They’re back now. What is new is the way that women respond. There’s graffiti, stickers, women taking self-defence classes, so the fightback is on.

What impact has the Egyptian Revolution had on Palestine?
In Gaza, you can see clearly what Egypt should do. It should stop acting as [the Palestinians’] jailer and it should stop being Israel’s thug. It’s one of the things that people are looking for in the new president. The whole Egypt-Israel relationship has to be recalibrated.

Is there anything you’d rather forget?
I don’t think it’s right to forget things.

Do you vote?
Yes, I do.

Are we all doomed?
Absolutely not!

Defining moments

1950 Born in Cairo, Egypt
1992 Publishes her first novel, In the Eye of the Sun
1999 Her second novel, The Map of Love, is shortlisted for the Booker Prize
2008 Founds and chairs the Palestinian Festival of Literature
2011 Wins Cavafy Award
2012 Bloomsbury publishes Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, her personal account of the Arab spring in Egypt